Saturday, July 05, 2003
LONG LINES of U.S. soldiers heaped their cardboard plates with the holiday smorgasbord and chowed down in Hussein’s ornate banquet halls. Many then escaped the 112-degree heat with a cool dip in the ousted Iraqi president’s indoor swimming pool.
“It was a big kick in his face,” said Staff Sgt. Isaac Day, 27, of Tarpon Springs, Fla., grinning broadly as he lounged poolside beneath marble columns. “Not only are we going to sleep in your house, we’re going to celebrate the Fourth of July here.”
After weeks of enduring heat, homesickness and increasing attacks from Iraqi factions opposed to their presence, about 3,500 Army troops luxuriated in a brief respite this weekend, benefiting from Hussein’s taste for excess and U.S. military leaders’ efforts to boost morale.
The Army’s 4th Infantry Division, which has taken up residence at Hussein’s massive compound here near the banks of the Tigris River, has transformed a mini-palace into The Soldiers Inn Recreation Center, an amusement center for off-duty troops.
Within the marble walls of the R&R complex, which opened two weeks ago, a desert-weary soldier can watch fairly recent Hollywood movies in a private cinema, play pool beneath domed, hand-painted ceilings, plug into the Internet or swim in the pool, which was inaugurated today with the help of Hussein’s former pool man.
FINDING A WAY TO RELAX
“When the soldiers come in, they’ve got this dead look on their faces, almost like they’re in a trance,” said Spec. Jason Crippen, a 24-year-old Missouri reservist who runs the equipment checkout desk for the recreation center. “When they leave, they’re smiling and laughing.”
Among the popular sporting goods are fishing poles available for casting into the network of ponds and lagoons fed by the Tigris. Soldiers catch carp, catfish and eels, but toss them back for fear of pollution from the murky green waters, Crippen said.
Today, in celebration of the first summer holiday since U.S. troops invaded Iraq, soldiers handed out hot dogs, hamburgers and non-alcoholic beer to troops stationed at checkpoints and other locations outside major bases. Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger visited several bases, dishing out one-liners and pep talks.
At the Tikrit compound, Spec. Michael Chap, 21, a cable installer from Mount Pleasant, Tex., sat in the hot shade of a beach umbrella sipping tepid water and watching colleagues splashing in a pond. From his vantage point, he could see three of the more than 40 palaces, mini-palaces and mega-mansions nearby.
“It’s like watching ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ ” said Chap, who was browned by the sun. “You watch that and you know how we’re living.”
PERFECT FOR SECURITY
The Tikrit compound, located about two hours northwest of Baghdad, is surrounded by high fences and guard towers — perfect for military security. Though the main Presidential Palace was rendered uninhabitable by U.S. missile strikes during the war, various components of the 4th Infantry Division and other units that make up Task Force Iron Horse have staked out their own palaces during the last two months.
Communications specialists have set up shop in a balconied waterfront mansion that looks like a sandstone wedding cake. The public affairs office is set in the cavernous marble atrium lobby of another palace. Engineers and other teams have taken over the Water Palace, a geometrically shaped building surrounded by green-tinted pond water.
Visitors arriving for today’s volleyball tournaments, cookout and band concert experienced a change in surroundings after weeks in tents, battered Iraqi military barracks or other makeshift accommodations. Military officials said they hope to rotate about 500 soldiers every two or three days through the recreation center, though only about 200 visitors arrived today. With 26,000 troops now assigned to Task Force Iron Horse, it may be months before most soldiers can visit.
Some of the 3,500 troops based here played down the extravagant setting to the temporary visitors. “The chandeliers aren’t really crystal and gold,” a soldier-resident confided. “When you look closely, you see they’re glass and tin.”
There is one deficiency in even the biggest palaces — a shortage of bathrooms. Mammoth buildings with dozens of rooms, extravagant marble lobbies and seemingly endless hallways might have only five bathrooms. Thus, in military style, even the grandest palace has a row of portable toilets in its parched garden.
STILL A SOLDIER, NOT A KING
Military officials defended the takeover of the palace complex as one of the best locations in the region to provide security and a decent quality of life for soldiers. They discounted concerns that local Iraqis, who still cannot visit the complex, might view the U.S. presence as being just as imperious as that of Hussein.
“When we first came here, I was in awe,” said Sgt. Mike Tenorio, 22, a member of his unit’s honor guard from Austin, Tex. “I didn’t expect to come here and live in a palace.” Now, he said, “It’s all right living in a palace, but I’d rather be back living in my duplex with my wife and kids.”
Meanwhile, back at the pool, Staff Sgt. Day said that after years of reading bedtime fairy tales to his 5-year-old daughter, Doe, he sent her an e-mail saying he now lives in a palace.
“Daddy, are you a king?” she asked in return.
“I’m not a king,” said Day. “I’m a soldier living in a palace.”